Gnat & Camel

Last week I was (pleasantly?) surprised to open our city’s newspaper, The Press, to find its editorial was entitled “The Gnat and the Camel” (see above photo; text here). Since then, I have been carrying out an (unscientific) survey to see who knew what the headline alluded to.

I have tended to ask well-educated Kiwis – those with at least one university degree and many with post-graduate qualifications. The result has been pretty clearcut. Those who are regular church-goers all could identify the source as one of Jesus’ sayings. No one else could.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

It didn’t matter if the person had gone to a church school – Roman Catholic or not. It didn’t matter if they were occasional church attenders. The saying was only known by regular church-goers.

I was recently talking to a reasonably-well-known Kiwi artist. In the conversation, it became clear that, without any embarrassment, this artist had no idea about Christianity (and hence of Christian, read Western, symbolism or allusions in art). In another conversation, with a graduate in a degree which included history, again – no basic framework about Christianity (and hence, from my perspective, of Western History).

If we are going to “lay blame” for lack of knowledge of Christianity, let’s at least place some of the blame on us – the Church, Christians, for our inability to get our message out in this “Information Age”. Then, let’s put some blame on our post-modern educational approach where there is no canon of truth but individual schools and individual teachers decide what the content of their courses will be (a recent example: individual schools decide whether to teach consent as part of their sex education). Thirdly, lay blame again at the door of Christians in not effectively critiquing the post-modernism that rejects a canon of agreed truth.

In this, some churches may need to get their own house in order first. In NZ Anglicanism, it is possible, as just one example, to be a priest without ever having formally studied the Reformation.

Let’s conclude by returning to Jesus’ wonderful image. He was clearly the political cartoonist of his day, the presenter of the late-night TV show which humorously pokes fun in the most pointed of manners.

The Old Testament forbids the eating of gnats:

All creatures that swarm upon the earth are detestable; they shall not be eaten. Whatever moves on its belly, and whatever moves on all fours, or whatever has many feet, all the creatures that swarm upon the earth, you shall not eat; for they are detestable. (Leviticus 11:41-42)

The image of swallowing a camel would, of course, have had Jesus’ listeners rolling in the aisles with laughter as they visualised its head visible inside the person’s stomach on one side, and legs on the other. The scribes and Pharisees wouldn’t be laughing – they got the point! But Jesus didn’t just choose the camel because it was a large, fun image. It was a pun in Aramaic on words that even looked the same:

You strain out a galma (gnat) but swallow a gamla (camel)!

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